Why you should care
Hollywood’s about to get political with this new administration. Who will be depicted?
“The Negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect.”
The documentary Whose Streets? opens with this on-screen quote from a landmark 1857 Supreme Court decision, which ruled that a Missouri slave named Dred Scott remained chattel, even though he had lived for years with his master in slave-free states.
Then the audience is brought into the present with a tweet: “I just saw someone die, OMFG.”
For the next 104 minutes, the film by co-directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis tells the story of the shooting and killing of an unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown Jr., and the aftermath that ignited Ferguson, Missouri, and the nation. Another provocative documentary, The Force, compresses years of filming into 93 minutes as director Pete Nicks tracks Oakland’s efforts to reform its police department against a backdrop of protest — community marches, blockades and chants of “hands up, don’t shoot.”
What both documentaries have in common isn’t just police brutality or their premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. They’re also directly or tangentially about the Black Lives Matter movement. Arising in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Florida shooting of the unarmed, hoodie-wearing Black teenager, Trayvon Martin, the movement now is old enough to see documentaries and feature films being released about BLM’s issues of racial injustice, police brutality and inequality.
Film is a tool where you can really be in charge of the message.
Renee Romano, history professor, Oberlin College
To be sure, the directors of Whose Streets? and The Force, did not set out to make BLM films — in fact, they object to such pigeonholing of their work — but nonetheless they significantly explore the topic. Beyond Sundance, BLM also plays a role in director Laurens Grant’s BET film Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement, which follows personal stories in the movement, as well as Frame 394, a Canadian film shortlisted for the Oscars about the 2015 police shooting of Walter L. Scott, an unarmed Black man in South Carolina, for which the officer was charged with murder. Then, of course, there’s Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about James Baldwin and race relations in America.
All this BLM-related film comes at a time when Hollywood has been fiercely criticized for its lack of diversity. A year ago, #OscarsSoWhite became a notorious hashtag and a hot-button issue when Black films, directors and actors were shut out of Academy Award nominations. This year the Oscar nominations were more representative. Six Black actors — a record — earned nods, and racially diverse films are solidly in the best picture race: Moonlight, a biopic about a gay Black man in Miami; Fences, a backyard drama set in 1950s Pittsburgh and based on the August Wilson play; and Hidden Figures, a dramedy about a trio of Black women who helped launch NASA into orbit with their number-crunching wizardry. A couple of other numbers to chew on: Fences has earned about $50 million domestically, which is exceptional for a character-driven drama, and Hidden Figures already has hit $100 million in domestic box office takings.
So, will Hollywood show the love for socially conscious BLM-themed projects by offering more green lights, bigger budgets for production and marketing and wider distribution? One promising sign: Fox 2000, Temple Hill and State Street won the bidding war for The Hate U Give, a Young Adult novel inspired by the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old Black man, at Oakland’s Fruitvale BART Station. The producers signed Hunger Games alum Amandla Stenberg to star. Cautions Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association, “The jury is still out [on commerciality]. One would hope a well-told story is something that would be seen by everyone. We know that’s often not the case.” Marketing, he says, can miss its mark and ignore the key demographics that would enjoy a movie.
Historically it’s been a different creative universe for social justice movements in the U.S., which once spread their messages through books and speeches. Martin Luther King Jr. explained the Civil Rights movement in his tome Why We Can’t Wait, which was published only a year after the violent 1963 Birmingham antisegregation campaign. Only occasionally were films used. In the 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee produced short documentaries for its members and potential allies that were akin to brand ads — they stated the mission well. Back then, moviegoing options were limited, historian Leigh Raiford says. Now, “there’s no shortage of ways for films to reach people.” In today’s era of cheaper production and streaming services — for the second straight year Netflix was the biggest buyer at Sundance — films may not even need Hollywood to get broad distribution. The greatest benefit of this shift? “Film is a tool where you can really be in charge of the message,” says Renee Romano, a history professor at Oberlin College.
As far as the filmmakers of Whose Streets? and The Force are concerned, reaching more people may mean resisting attempts to categorize their works as part of any movement. “We absolutely support Black Lives Matter,” says co-director Folayan. “But Whose Streets? is about human rights, about raising children in a different way, the militarization of the police. I know Black Lives Matter is going to support us, but that kind of makes [the film] small versus the historical trajectory of all the people of color oppressed on the margins.” As for The Force director Nicks, who won Sundance’s U.S. documentary directing award, the goal was to remain unbiased. “I’m definitely not an activist filmmaker,” he says. “We were always focused on trying to tell the story of the cops. It wasn’t to tell the story of Black Lives Matter, but it was telling that story tangentially through [the cops’] eyes.”
There’s something else the two documentaries share: Neither was picked up during Sundance. As is often the case with racially themed films, the passage of time provides an emotional buffer for potentially searing emotional content. Think Selma, 12 Years a Slave, The Color Purple … And so it was Mudbound, about two World War II veterans — one white, one Black — returning to their rural Mississippi hometown that led the field at Sundance with a $12.5 million deal.